How do I read a guitar tab? Beginner tutorial

Learn how to read tabs for guitar

Tablature or “tabs” is a form of musical notation that denotes fingerings rather than pitches. It is important to learn, however never a substitute for proper sheet music. Sheet music, or standard notation, gives a lot more info about a song than tablature can, so one day you should to consider learning to sight read music, but I digress... All tabs can do is to show you which note to play, but it doesn’t explain how long the note is to be played for. Generally, tabs work best while listening to the music you are trying to play that way you know by ear how the song is supposed to be played. Below is a picture of the C major scale on guitar:

how to read tabs for guitar

Without the top row showing us each note is a whole note we wouldn’t have any idea how to play the tablature. Many students make the mistake of learning tabs without taking the time to learn sheet music, while tabs can help you survive in a band, your musical education will only go so far with them.

guitar tabs and standard notation

If you notice, there are six lines to the tablature. The bottom line is the low E string and the top line is the high E string. Looking at the picture of the C scale in tabs we see the first note is the 3rd fret on the A string (which of course is the note C). This is a very easy system to read and you will pick it up quickly. Sometimes when the tabs denote a chord or a partial chord you will see more than one note to played, the tab for the C chord would be X32010. Here is an example below of a few more chords written in tablature;

chords guitar tab

Just as you can look up the basic chord structure online of most songs, you can also find tabs for the song. In fact, when searching a song online I will usually specify whether I want chords or tabs in my query. When I am playing guitar by myself I kind of like to mix chords and tabs. For example, I will use tabs to figure out the intro or solo to a song and then play the basic chord structure for the rest of the verses and chorus.

As easy as tablature is to read it is important to understand the limitations that arise with it. Tablature is instrument specific, so we have to make sure we are only reading tabs for guitar, and we often have to assume the tabs are in standard tuning. There is also no information on rhythm or timing, which is why you need to listen to the song while using tabs to learn. If you are writing your own song, it is wise not to write it in tabs because later you may not remember the specifics of the notes you have written.

Hammer on, pull off and vibrato

There some symbols that can help us when we read tabs. For example, an h denotes a "hammer on" and a p denotes a "pull off". (A hammer on is when you are moving UP a note and a pull off is where you are moving DOWN). Sometimes they are written with either a curved line or as 2h4 or 4p2. (2 hammer on to 4 or 4 pull off to 2)

guitar tabs pull of and hammer on

Bends can be labeled with a b or with an arrow pointing up. If the note is bent and then released it will have an arrow going up and then an arrow pointing down right after, the tabs will also inform you if it is a full or half bend.

how to read tabs for guitar: bending

A slash / will mean an upward slide, while a backslash \ will indicate a downward slide. Vibrato can be labeled with a v or ~. A trill is labeled as tr and a muted string is labeled with an x. Unfortunately, because tablature is not standardized you may sometimes see different symbols depending on who is writing the tabs. That’s why it is so important to listen to the song while you are learning to play a piece of tablature, that way your ears can tell what technique is needed.

Most guitar players are familiar with the intro to Black Sabbath "Iron Man" and below are the standardized notes and the tabs;

black sabbath iron man guitar tab

Notice how the curved line is used to indicate both eighth and sixteenth notes. If we are not already familiar with this song, the tabs would not give us a good idea of how to play the notes.

Most folks also know how to play "Sweet Child O’Mine" by Guns N Roses, and once again notice below how the tabs are only helpful if we already know the tune;

Sweet Child o'mine guitar tab

This tablature above also doesn’t tell us that the song is tuned half a step down from normal tuning. My intention isn’t to turn anyone off from using tabs, they are definitely helpful in the right situation. However, as a beginning player it’s wise not to get stuck only understanding tabs without knowing how to use sheet music. Tabs are actually best when specifically used with sheet music like the "Sweet Child O’Mine" example above. That way you can save some time with knowing exactly what notes your fingers are playing. If you really want to challenge yourself on the guitar, learn how to play straight from standard notation and sheet music without any tablature! Now that is not easy.

Recap video lesson

In the following free video lesson, David Wallimann, teacher at Jamplay, shows you how to read guitar tabs, check it out:

Beware of what you find on the Web!

wrong guitar tab As you start to search the web for tabs of songs you like, don’t forget that not every thing you find will be correct. Just like chorded songs you will often come across completely erroneous info and horribly tabbed songs. Because of copyright issues most tabbed songs out there are added by users, not by the original songwriter or musician. This means you sometimes have no idea if the tabs you have found are even remotely correct. As mentioned above when it comes to tabs you need to rely solely on your ears and listening abilities to tell what is right and what is wrong. If a piece of tablature sounds off, it likely is… and if you happen to figure out the right tabs by all means post it out there! That way the next student learning about tabs will not be confused. When you were learning chords it was best to look up as many songs that you like as possible, now while learning tabs you do the same. Google intro melodies, riffs, solos, and as many tabs as you can think of! As you start to get the hang of tablature challenge yourself by learning some new songs, just remember to listen to the piece while trying out the tabs.

Conclusion and useful links

Now you should have a good understanding on how to read guitar tabs. As previously said, the tabs that you can find on the Internet can be wrong, so be careful and trust your ears! If you have questions or comments, please drop a line in the section below, and don't forget to share this article if you liked it!

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